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A Portrait Of Youth: Masks, Mistakes and Mental Illness, Part 6

What is it about being young that prompts us to pretend we are something we are not? What is it about youth that makes the allure of mistakes almost seductive?

It is in our youth that we discover the dark side of humanity. As children we are blissfully unaware of all the different forms of pain and suffering humanity is prone to losing themselves in; but past puberty and angst, we discover the worlds of depression and anxiety that envelop us into their bosom, as if they had been awaiting to embrace us. It is in these primal years of adulthood that for the first time we are aware of life’s most gruelling elements — and due to our naivete, we assume it will last forever. We do not have the wisdom of adults in their later years, and we no longer can cling to the innocence of our childhood. Thus we are left in a limbo, where things go wrong and all we want to do is hide, because we firmly believe that what breaks will be broken forever.

It is in this series that I will examine from hindsight what it feels like to be trapped in this narrow perception of youth, through six poems that I wrote when I was younger. I aim to explore their causes and implications, from the perspective of the (relative) lucidity that I have now, having grown away from the hurt that infuses their words. And perhaps, in doing so, I can provide closure to both my past, and the past of anyone who has suffered from the “disease” of being young.

This last poem of the series happens to be the second part of the poem collectively known as “Deathbed Delusions” (the first part of this poem was covered in my previous article). I wrote it at the same time as my first one, last summer. That summer was the first time I was truly honest with myself about my youth, about the nature of my mistakes and their repercussions; and this poem was the first poem that ever truly examined my intentions and my flaws. There has been five poems in this series so far, covering a history of my youth which hopefully resonates with anyone who suffers from mental illness — but these five poems do not reach the heights that this poem did in laying everything out to be visible and noticeable. That was what my goal was, though only subconsciously: to write what has really happened in my life compared to what I sought to pretend happened. 

This is something I’m sure most youth do at one point or another: romanticize their life, to make things appear more pretty even though it’s a lie or at the very least a distortion. To me, this poem broke past all those boundaries, and it flowed out like the juices of some fruit that had been ripened and ready for a long while inside me. And I do think, in a tone of conclusion, that we should all experience a moment in our lives when we stop pretending in any way at all, we take off all our masks, and we tell ourselves how we really feel, what we really think, where we come from and where we are going. Perhaps then we can know ourselves enough to remove what’s been hurting us, what’s been controlling us.

The title of this two part poem is Deathbed Delusions, because I pretended that I was on my deathbed when writing them: not because of any interest in death, but rather because I wanted it to be the death of everything I used to be that I no longer am: everything that hurt, all the bruises and scars that gather just from growing up. I wanted this poem to be a fresh start for me, and so calling this second half “Will, Revised” is especially poignant to me, because my fake will that I’m revising on my supposed deathbed is the real will that I am redirecting in my life toward places of goodness and away from places of hurt. This journey is unique to every one of us, but the one claim that I can make is that if we can’t help each other, at least we can support each other — and most importantly, make each other feel less alone. These are my final words, and here below is the final poem of this series. Thank you, and the best of luck in growing up.

Deathbed Delusions, Part 2: Will, Revised

And it was there,

As I fled back in ricochet to the masks of my Before,

That I at last revelled:

I had never in my life known the face of an After.

I strolled into the quicksand of my Future

And with skin glazed pure by Past

I sank with a smile

The way a match smiles on a dry summer day

I wanted flames

I know that now

And yet a bridge of kindling was to keep its form

I wanted pavement over a river of ashes

(With no inkling that one doomed the other)

And to walk over it like a pilgrim

Ever ready for self-immolation 

I wanted to swallow sparks like medicine

And with igneous eyes to see

The pavement marble below me

The ashes a motion of stardust beneath

Though I knew neither

And neither wanted me

I wanted glory

But the selfish kind

That stains of recognition

And praises superstition

It was the will of my reach

That hid coy and mulled in deceit

A tumour that I obeyed like a tuner

That stretched my limbs beyond capacity

My scope displaced me, tossed me aside

Like a ragdoll ravaged 

Of motor, motive, mobility

And of innocence in memory

I wanted virtue

But by condition and through constriction

Like an exercise in self-eugenics

It was by its limits an empty pursuit

For the infinity is fixed by the absolute

I did not grasp, much less seize the flash

That climbing virtues without valor

And against the patience of nature 

Was like climbing steps as tall as trees

that slid with the silky syrup 

Of my presumed trickle-down victories

Deluded is the man 

That falls from grace in search of its sweetness

And so glory and virtue from the sickle of things

Rushed off hand in hand into the song the wind brings

And hid from me as angels from kings

And as children from strangers 

And soft-whispered warnings

I wanted beauty

But far too much

I wanted honor

But not enough

When it had been so long

That want was do 

And do was death

Alive was like a foreign tongue

But change was that touch

I had flinched from like the devil 

At the age of nine 

And flinching grew to be my stagnation

Flinching and running and closing my eyes

Until its touch was the only exception 

To the rot that had befallen every sensation

To ripen

To mature

What a thought

Cool as marble 

Fine as stardust

To ripen without rust

To mature without moulder— 

What kind of soldier?

What battle of backward?

What loan for what’s lost?

And at what brave, at what foul, at what desperate cost?

It has now been I the child

That hides from strangers

Though they wear the face of a parent

And I the mask of a trespasser

I have laid here long enough

To know what it is to stand for something

And I have held nothing but wither longer enough

To know the unstoppable growth of all that is living

Here it is as I revise

That I remiss the ricochet

And find a state that will not stray

I now embrace the meaning 

Of Before and After convening

Of the forever-form and -motion

And truth’s devouring devotion

And here it is

As sickle sets sight on sow

That for the first moment

In the last of moments

I will to live

And seek to grow

Anthony Herman

Helsinki '23

I am a half American half Finnish student studying English in Helsinki University. I've always been a creative type, and my main passion in life is writing. I've been writing actively for seven years, and I write poetry, prose, and drama. I am also very active in theatre: I produce, direct, and act. My other hobbies include painting horribly and singing musical numbers in the shower.
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